Burke Turns His Back on Longtime Tag, Refocuses Visa on 'Empowerment'

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Kevin Burke bought a $49 program from CompUSA and used it last year to figure out how to strip his 100-year-old San Francisco Edwardian down to the studs and turn it into a modern house, leaving only the original doorbell intact in the process.

Then came another remodeling challenge for Mr. Burke, one at the U.S.' top credit-card marketer. After snagging the post of senior VP-advertising and brand management at Visa USA, Mr. Burke is now trying to renovate its brand in the face of the biggest upheavals in 30 years.

"You look at what you have and leverage the equity," Mr. Burke, 44, said of his work at Visa and at home. He loves the creative process, saying "If you can get past the headaches, the creative is the really cool part of it."

But to put it in starker terms, "Kevin's challenge [at Visa] is the major shift in the credit card business," said an executive familiar with the marketer. "It's never easy to guide a brand in the way they do business let alone the way they market the business as well."


This week, Mr. Burke and the rest of the marketing team will demolish Visa's tagline of some 20 years, "It's everywhere you want to be," and unveil a new one focusing on "empowerment."

Visa has maintained its 50%-plus market share even with an onslaught of advertising from MasterCard International and its iconic "Priceless" campaign. Meanwhile, banks like Citibank and Capital One are leveraging their own brands, an impediment to the Visa brand.

Mr. Burke, a veteran San Francisco agency executive, first became interested in advertising as a Bellingham, Mass., high school student, where he participated in a marketing club. After college, he took a job in direct marketing at Bronner Slosberg Humphrey, now Digitas, in Boston. Recruited by Foote Cone & Belding, he worked in the late 1980s at the San Francisco office during its heyday under creative director Mike Koelker.

Mr. Burke's boldest foray onto the ad scene came in 1997 with his opening of Left Field, an interactive agency that flourished during the dot-com boom. Later, under the name Tonic 360, the agency won the Sun Microsystems account. With $100 million in billings from clients including Amazon.com, Tonic 360 was purchased by J. Walter Thompson Co., and Mr. Burke became president of the San Francisco office. But the West Coast's doldrums eventually led to the agency being consolidated into JWT's Los Angeles office.

Mr. Burke said ownership by a holding company led the shop to lose its entrepreneurial spirit "to a certain degree. A start-up has a dynamic culture that is hard to reconcile with being part of a larger agency."

He planned to take a year off and devote himself to his house, but then Visa caught Mr. Burke's attention. New Chief Marketing Officer Suzanne Lyons was embarking on a mission to recast one of the world's top brands.

A barrage of self-promotion helped Mr. Burke snare the job about a year ago, just in time for an agency review that pitted 20-year incumbent BBDO Worldwide, New York, against several Omnicom Group siblings. TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., emerged the winner.

"They got the strategy right from the beginning," Mr. Burke said. "At the very first meeting, they understood the business opportunities for the brand."

How that understanding translates into effective marketing will start to be revealed during the Winter Olympics, as the new ad campaign hits the slopes.

Just Asking

Kevin Burke

Visa USA

What was memorable about working with the late FCB creative guru Mike Koelker?

Mike had a pure vision. I loved his 501 Blues campaign.

Leaders you admire? [Visa CMO] Suzanne Lyons and [JWT CEO] Bob Jeffries. Both are smart, warm and approachable.

What’s in store for cellphone payments? In India, you can not only pay bills, you can receive payments over the cellphone.

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